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Is healthy eating erasing our heritage? One mom's dilemma

One mom shares the struggle she faces to balance cooking healthy food for her kids while also keeping her family's Italian heritage alive.
/ Source: TODAY
Woman prepares pies on a table in her home kitchen.
Woman prepares pies on a table in her home kitchen.uzhursky / Shutterstock

Clomping off the bus after a long six hours of school, I knew the smell of spaghetti sauce would greet me as I burst through the backdoor of my childhood home. It was Thursday, and my grandmother always made sauce on Thursday to go with the pasta she’d rolled and cut the day before.

“Hi, Dolly,” she called out, wiping flour from her hands on her flower-patterned apron. Her greying hair was sprinkled with it and her large, round bifocals were thoroughly dusted. The pot on the stove bubbled and simmered as it had since early that morning, and rows of linguini sat out to dry on cookie sheets on the counter. She handed me a plate of anisette cookies and a tall glass of milk to tide me over as I started on my homework.

The child of Italian immigrants from Naples, my grandmother was as feisty as she was short. She taught me the intricacies of making the perfect pasta fagioli and gave me the temerity to pluck a pheasant to go with the homemade spicy noodle soup. Our family tradition survived, alive in my siblings and me...along with the butter, the gluten and the carbs overflowing our plates each meal.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Mariani
My grandmother, Elizabeth MarianiCourtesy Darlena Cunha

Fast forward 20 years. I slap some quinoa on a plate with herb paste, which is a far cry from Grandma’s pesto chock full of cheese and oil, but a recipe I’ve based on her original. Instead of a cup of parmesan cheese and a cup of olive oil to every cup of basil, I’ve gone down to a quarter cup of oil and cheese. Then I console myself that at least I had time to steam the squash and sauté onions and mushrooms. Instead of meatballs handcrafted and molded with crunchy bread crumbs, I add baked salmon I’d prepared a night earlier and call it a meal.

And a meal it is, a fantastic one by today’s standards of protein-rich, low-carb, gluten-free health. Although our obesity rates remain at 35.1 percent and almost 70 percent of us are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control, studies show that Americans are eating fewer calories, less fat and less cholesterol on a daily basis. According to the USDA, almost 60 percent of people check nutrition labels when buying groceries, and food companies are responding by making healthier fare. Still, I cringe a little as I set down the plates. My 6-year-old twins have never seen pasta made by hand; they’ve never experienced the natural juices of roasted beef cooked in its own fat all day. The cholesterol, the starch of it all -- it is too much.

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In a time when family roots are growing thinner than ever, as we move away from our loved ones to find work where we can, and see our grandparents and parents only a few times a year for holidays, by totally eschewing the foods of our pasts, are we cutting our last tie to where we come from?

Food is so much more than what goes into our bodies, when you think of it this way. The experience of cooking with your elders, the smells and tastes and the day-long process of making a meal that came from your home country; it’s more than calories, it’s memories. Not only the fading, sepia-toned snapshots my generation holds of our beloved parents and grandparents, but the memories we are forging in our own children’s lives. Food represents our culture, our heritage, it is who we are. Should we forsake that entirely for our health? Sunday meatball dinners shaped me, the camaraderie and feeling of belonging has never again been replicated. My girls deserve that same sense of self. They’re not going to get it from a hastily mixed smoothie as we rush out the door.

Eating healthily is important, but will it obliterate our last ties to our immigrant ancestors? If we modify them, are we modifying our heritage? Maybe there’s a middle ground. When I teach my children to make pesto, I’ll give them the healthy recipe, but recount the times my grandmother made it with me, and when we share it over our quinoa or whole-grain pasta, we’ll take the time out to savor the meal with conversation and laughter. If we can’t preserve the ingredients of our foods, we can at least preserve the memories that went with them.

Gram may no longer be with us, but her anisette cookies will live on unmarred by current health concerns. I refuse to change one ingredient, and every holiday we feast on a dessert tray worthy of old Italy.